I imagine diplomats travel the world in James Bond-like attire while swilling martinis, but the truth is they probably spend more time looking for a phone charger that works with the local power outlets than they do mingling with the elite. Advocating for international cooperation in far-flung places is difficult and often unsung work.
United Nations picture from Shutterstock
To learn a little about what it’s like to be a diplomat with the US State Department, we spoke with Luke Durkin, who is an experienced “Foreign Service Officer” of seven years.
Tell us a bit about who you are, your current position, and how long you’ve been at it.
My name is Luke Durkin, and I’ve served as a Foreign Service Officer at the US Department of State for the last seven years. In my current assignment I work on environmental, science, technology, and health issues at US Embassy Bogota, but I’ve worked on a variety of other issues in my prior postings.
Foreign Service assignments typically last between one and three years, and we work in a variety of capacities at US embassies overseas or in Washington, DC. We’re divided into five career tracks: Consular Officers process visas and assist American citizens; Management Officers concentrate on keeping our operations running effectively; Public Diplomacy Officers manage relations with the public and run our cultural and educational exchange programs; and Political Officers and Economic Officers draft reports, manage programs, and advocate for US interests.
What drove you to choose your career path?
Prior to joining the Foreign Service, I enjoyed learning foreign languages, had great experiences studying abroad and serving as a Peace Corps volunteer and studied public administration. It turned out to be a pretty natural fit.
How did you go about getting your job? What kind of education and experience did you need?
Candidates enter the Foreign Service through a civil exam. It’s a long process. Applicants first take a written exam that covers a wide range of relevant topics (geography, politics, economics, history, culture, and so on… basically anything that you could learn in a 101-level university course). If they pass, they submit a personal narrative, and examiners pare down the applicant pool further.
Next, applicants take an oral assessment that includes a structured interview, a group session, and a written “case management” exercise. Finally, those who pass apply for medical and security clearance. If they manage to get through all this, they’re placed on a register of eligible candidates that is ordered by their scores and hired as slots become available.
Interestingly, there isn’t much in the way of requirements for education or experience… basically all you need is a high school certificate, a curious mind and a whole lot of stick-to-it-iveness. My training cohort included former lawyers, soldiers, academics and aid workers, but also some folks who’d just graduated from university, people who had never set foot outside of the country and even former Broadway actors.
What kinds of things do you do beyond what most people see? What do you actually spend the majority of your time doing?
At a broad level, I see the main task of a Foreign Service Officer to be finding the smartest, most influential people in the US, and working with them to boost the country’s prosperity, security and values. Needless to say, these are really open-ended tasks and there’s no blueprint. To name just a few of my current duties, I work to promote initiatives to combat climate change, to provide US assistance to fight disease and to monitor the regulation of illegal fishing.
This work is actually really challenging to do well; a good diplomat has to quickly grok a wide variety of challenging subjects (think nuclear energy, foreign legal systems, trade policy, etc.), hold intelligent conversations about them in foreign languages with the foremost experts in a given country and figure out creative ways to provide for both sides’ interests.
What misconceptions do people often have about your job?
Many people believe we spend our time eating hors d’oeuvres at black-tie events with muckety-mucks in Paris. In reality our experiences run the gamut… we live in hardship or comfort, endure freezing or tropical weather, work in office cubicles or battlefields and experience everything in between.
What are your average work hours?
It varies widely depending on the assignment, the supervisor and the post. Consular and Management Officers tend to keep standard business hours, whereas Political, Economic and Public Diplomacy Officers often have to attend evening events and answer urgent after-hours calls. In far-flung time zones, there are only a few precious hours each day when local working hours overlap with those of Washington. And natural disasters, political strife, or other unforeseen events can transform a low-key job into a demanding assignment in which you’re on call 24/7.
What personal tips and shortcuts have made your job easier?
Having no hesitation to ask for a favour can be really helpful in this career. Every few years you find yourself in a new job, a new social setting, and a new country. It’s up to you to find the people that can help you orient yourself and ask them for help.
What do you do differently from your coworkers or peers in the same profession? What do they do instead?
I think the best diplomats are masters at considering timing and audience. The exact same idea in the exact same report can languish unread or make a huge impact, depending on when it’s released and to whom it’s sent.
What’s the worst part of the job and how do you deal with it?
It’s challenging to pack up and move every couple of years, and it can be a struggle to make everything work seamlessly. You lose touch with your family and friends when you have a 12-hour time difference and a patchy internet connection. Sometimes your personal effects get sent to Barbados instead of Beijing. The SUV you just purchased for the Namibian rainy season might not fit into your parking spot in Tokyo.
Just when you’ve learned how to say “laundry detergent” in Swahili you’re sent to Bulgaria. Power surges might fry your electronics, which happen to be two generations behind and twice as costly on the local market. And some of the atrocious service providers I’ve seen make me pine for the comparatively punctual and friendly service of US cable companies.
What’s the most enjoyable part of the job?
It’s easy to forget how joyful it is to meet new people, to learn new languages and cultures and to discover the delights of a new place. The great thing about this career is that it takes your life off of auto-pilot and that you’re forced to consider aspects of life that would normally become mundane. Everything from social customs to transportation to visiting the supermarket is transformed into an adventure.
Do you have any advice for people who need to enlist your services?
Embassies perform an amazing variety of functions, so it’s hard to pigeon-hole the people who are seeking our services. Since most Americans interact with the Foreign Service through the Consular Section, I’ll start there.
For Americans travelling abroad, an embassy can be a great resource if you need help. We can put you in touch with the authorities, connect you to family and friends back home, replace your documents, and assist in a variety of other ways. But at the end of the day, we can’t change the fact that you’re in a foreign country. You would be wise to come prepared (travel.state.gov is your friend) and remember that you’re at the mercy of local conditions, authorities, and law.
What kind of money can one expect to make at your job?
Our pay scale is publicly available and can be found through an internet search. It’s worth noting that there are a lot of ins and outs to our pay — the exchange rate, the local cost of living, a lack of employment opportunities for family members, danger pay, and other costs and incentives all affect the bottom line. Most people live comfortably, but few people get rich.
How do you “move up” in your field?
Every couple years a panel reads through the performance evaluations of officers who are up for promotion to determine who should move up. There’s also a worldwide game of musical chairs every time we rotate assignments, and officers use their qualifications and networking skills to land a new assignment. A higher grade opens up opportunities for assignments with more responsibilities, and assignments with more responsibilities tend to result in better promotion opportunities.
What do people under/over value about what you do?
People often take government for granted. Transportation officials keep goods and passengers moving, health officials fight epidemics, security officials keep criminal enterprise in check, environmental officials keep our air and water clean, agriculture and customs officials keep devastating diseases at bay, aviation officials make sure planes and airports are safe, etc. A great part of this includes some element of international cooperation, and we’re the folks who are informing these officials, representing them abroad, and facilitating their work overseas. You might not have ever set foot outside the country, but you’d be surprised how much our work benefits you.
What advice would you give to those aspiring to join your profession?
There are a variety of resources to help prepare for the exam, including our website, a “diplomat in residence” program that posts Foreign Service Officers at universities, and dozens of websites and online groups. I’d say the best thing you can do, however, is read a major newspaper like the New York Times or the Washington Post as well as a foreign affairs magazine like the Economist or Foreign Policy.
Patience is also a prerequisite. It’s quite normal to take the exam multiple times before passing, and it’s a lengthy process, even at its swiftest. Those who are interested should not be afraid to try and keep trying, with an approach that recognises that becoming a diplomat can be a long-term goal.
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